When Politics and Psychedelics Collide

Another sure sign that psychedelics are gaining momentum in mainstream medicine is how government officials and lawmakers are reacting to the surge of interest from the public.

For example, in May, U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) wrote a letter to Lawrence A. Tabak, the acting director National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Dr. Robert M. Califf, the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) referencing a January workshop on psychedelics by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and encouraging both the NIH and FDA “to further expand their role in identifying research gaps, potentially promising therapeutic uses of psychedelics, and regulatory hurdles in the field of psychedelic research.” That January workshop, they wrote, marked another positive step by the NIH in understanding the benefits of psychedelics.

They also cited work by the NIH in April 2021, when it awarded its first grant dedicated to medicinal psychedelic research with psilocybin. The senators then asked both agencies about any upcoming research, collaborations, and regulatory barriers.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who has been promoting legalizing cannabis for years, and has been battling the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) about cannabis scheduling and law enforcement, circulated a letter in December asking for signatures to petition the DEA to make psilocybin available for patients. 

Blumenauer was involved in the Oregon Measure 109 authorizing the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) to create a program to permit licensed service providers to administer psilocybin-producing mushroom and fungi products to individuals 21 years of age or older. The measure passed on November 3, 2020, making Oregon the first state to legalize psilocybin. “We need more and better research (for psychedelics), first and foremost,” he said, speaking during the launch of the Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation (POPLAR), a three-year initiative by the Harvard Law School to examine the ethical, legal, and social implications of psychedelics research, commerce, and therapeutics. “It needs more scientific rigor,” Blumenauer said.

Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), said MAPS has a program as part of their psychedelic harm reduction work to make drug policy work by consulting with and having a training program for police in Denver about what to do if they see someone having a difficult psychedelic experience. “We are going to do a pilot program of about 100 and if that works we will sign a contract do about 3,000 first responders in Denver,” he said at the POPLAR launch event. “We hope to do that in Oregon and elsewhere.” 

All those actions are the result of the steady drumbeat to decriminalize psychedelics, beginning with Denver in May 2019, which has been pushed by advocates to the top of the agenda for some lawmakers with varying degrees of success. There are a dozen cities and states that now have laws about decriminalizing psychedelics. Efforts to decriminalize continue in New York, Vermont, California, Utah, Missouri, Connecticut, New Jersey, Texas, Florida, and Hawaii.

But obstacles remain. 

One recent example comes from California State Senator Scott Wiener who introduced Senate Bill 519 in February 2021 to decriminalize not just psilocybin but also dimethyltryptamine (DMT), ibogaine, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) and mescaline in California.

That bill was put on hold in August 2021, and appears to be stuck in a stalemate. It is set to be revived sometime in 2022, according to Weiner speaking at the POPLAR launch event. 

The bill’s authors noted that the savings to the state for the decriminalization of those psychedelics would be $1 million if “just five fewer people are sentenced to state prison.” Opposition to the bill claimed that “there is evidence that the hallucinogenic effects of LSD can fuel murders and reportedly there have been at least 11 homicides involving LSD. Hallucinations can be dangerous to users and bystanders alike, and it is not clear that the benefit of legalizing these drugs outweighs the cost to the common welfare.”

But on another political level, psychedelics have been portrayed as having the power to change political viewpoints, effectively making people less authoritarian and more liberal thinking, leading to a more progressive and inclusive society. 

However, there are other historical examples where people with authoritarian views remained unaffected by psychedelic experience, or even developed authoritarian views after or with the assistance of a classic psychedelic. The jury is still out on this particular issue.It is imperative to address these blind spots to advance coherent, interdisciplinary socio-political frameworks for analyzing and engaging with the experiential realities and potential implications of psychedelic drug use,” one study concluded.

Doblin himself has advocated for a broader political and sociological change he believes can happen with psychedelics, saying that there is a fundamental unity with the processes of nature and the functioning of the universe that people can experience through psychedelics. “I think this will have profound political implications once we realize our intimate connection to nature, to global warming, to the environment, to other species, to other people that look different than us who have different religions or different gender orientation,” he said during the keynote for POPLAR. “I think this fundamental unity is what psychedelics will help people experience. So this is the political theory behind what we are trying to say. Which is that the more people we can help experience this fundamental unity, the better off we will be.” 


Dave Hodes

David Hodes is a business journalist based in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. He has contributed feature articles to several cannabis and psychedelics publications, as well as general business/lifestyle publications, on a variety of topics. Hodes was selected as 2018 Journalist of the Year by Americans for Safe Access. He is a member of the National Press Club, and the deputy booking agent for the National Press Club Headliners Committee.

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